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Confronting Ableism in Youth Work

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Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or perceived to have disabilities. The underlying assumption of ableism is that disabled people are inferior to non-disabled people. It’s time to confront ableism.

It may be hard to hear, but our society has been built on ableist assumptions. Because of that, we all have them. But we may not even be aware of them. And that makes it more difficult to confront ableism. But we can each do our part to raise awareness and advocate for change.

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    Ableism in youth work

    Ableist assumptions are just as prevalent in youth work as they are in society at large. If you are not aware of your own ableist biases, you are probably not even seeing the kinds of social barriers young people may encounter in your program.

    Ableism happens when people think or act like someone is less important or capable just because they have a disability. It can show up in different ways, like not giving someone a chance to join in activities because of their disability or making fun of someone for being different. This can make people feel left out or sad, which isn't fair.

    How youth workers can help

    As a youth worker, you play a big role in making sure everyone feels welcome, accepted, and included. Here are some ways you can confront ableism and create a more accessible space where disabled youth feel proud and included.

    Learn About Different Disabilities

    • Take time to learn about different disabilities, like how they affect people.
    • Consider the kinds of barriers different disabilities may entail. And what support would look like for people with different disabilities.
    • Share what you learn with others, especially with your program participants, so everyone understands disabilities better.

    Include Everyone in Activities

    • Make sure all activities are accessible to everyone, like having ramps for wheelchairs or using sign language for those who are deaf or hearing impaired.
    • Encourage teamwork and support so everyone feels they can take part.

    Positive actions for Disability Pride Month

    Disability Pride Month is a special time to celebrate the strengths and achievements of people with disabilities. Here are some positive actions youth workers can take during this month and beyond:

    Celebrate Differences

    • Hold events or discussions where everyone can share what makes them unique, including their disabilities.
    • Highlight stories of famous people with disabilities who have achieved great things.

    Promote Inclusive Language

    • Use words that show respect and understanding. Avoid stereotypes and hurtful terms.
    • Encourage others to use kind and inclusive language too.
    • Just like gender pronouns, ask how the person prefers to be acknowledged when talking about their disability. Person-first language sounds like “My name is Audra, and I have autism." Identity-first language sounds like "My name is Audra. I’m autistic."

    Advocate for Accessibility

    • Work together with your community to make sure public places and events are accessible to everyone.
    • Support initiatives that improve accessibility in schools and recreational areas.

    By understanding what ableism is and taking positive actions, youth workers can create spaces where disabled youth feel proud and valued. Together, we can make a difference and build a brighter future for everyone, no matter their abilities. It does take awareness. And you can always work on that!

    You can learn more by taking YIPA’s training, “Confronting Ableism in Youth Work to Empower Youth with Disabilities.”

    About the author

    Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Barbara a question or share your feedback about this blog, email barbara@yipa.org.

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